Jason Isbell delivered one of the strongest records in 2013, and in doing so, he helped redefine the parameters of Americana.
Above: Publicity photo for Southeastern (2013)
Though he probably felt some sting at the time, Jason Isbell’s departure from Drive-By Truckers in 2007 is inarguably the best thing that happened to the Alabama native. Post-Truckers, he’s written consistently high watermark songs that have established him as one of the best voices in American music and not just a third voice in one of the best bands in American music.
During his tenure with that act he was the bridge between Mike Cooley’s carefully refined and highly poignant material and Patterson Hood’s stream-of-gut narratives, visceral yarns that called to mind the Southern literary tradition that birthed Flannery O’ Connor and William Faulkner and snaked its way through music such that it made room for the winding, hypnotic verses of Yankees such as Bob Dylan.
Isbell drew characters that praised the Tennessee Valley Authority (“T.V.A.”), the same organization that broke men Cooley sang about (“Uncle Frank”). Whereas some would have painted the sentimental in broad strokes, he opted for a pointillist route, not unlike the more subtle and interesting writers emerging from Nashville in the ‘70s and ‘80s. His ability to recognize the wisdom of tradition and marry it with humor frequently resulted in heartbreakingly beautiful material (“Outfit”, from his 2003 debut with the Truckers, Decoration Day). Other times, he married the urban and the rural, not unlike the soul music made in the region of Alabama where he was raised (“Goddamn Lonely Love” from The Dirty South).
It’s those elements that remain most characteristic of his work and which populate his brilliant 2013 release Southeastern. No one can accuse Isbell of taking the easy route there, though. His 2007 debut, Sirens of the Ditch, was at times louder and angrier than one might have expected (“Brand New Kind of Actress”, “Try”) but also saw Isbell delivering songs that any writer of any time would be happy to have in their quiver: the breakup bawler “In A Razor Town” and “Dress Blues” (written about a young man from Isbell’s hometown who was killed in the war in Iraq.
Joined by The 400 Unit in 2009, he penned several more outstanding tracks on that year’s self-titled release, including “Streetlights”. The subsequent Here We Rest (2011) seamlessly blended his disparate influences and found him sounding more comfortable than ever before as he unleashed a series of songs that would have had a stranglehold on radio in a bygone era, whether “Alabama Pines”, “Codeine”, or “Save It For Sunday”. If there had been any question as to whether he could make it without the Truckers, Here We Rest laid those concerns to rest for once and for all.
Moreover, he proved himself an artist who was not above throwing his audience off the scent of easy classification. Though those aforementioned songs certainly made the case for understanding Isbell’s artistic ambitions and drive, others, such as “Go It Alone” and his cover of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” on a live recording from the era, proved that he wasn’t going anywhere quietly.
But the path to those albums was one that saw the artist walking some rugged ground. By early 2012, years of hard partying had begun to catch up with him. Like a number of artists before him he sought sobriety, and as happened for a handful of those writers, he emerged from his early sobriety with material that found him in stronger form than ever.
It’s tempting to draw parallels between Isbell’s Southeastern and John Hiatt’s Bring the Family. Both find the artists face-to-face with their audience on the sleeve and meet the listener heart-to-heart in the grooves. But where Hiatt opened his record with a salute to escape (“Memphis In the Meantime”), Isbell offered clear-eyed observations on high intimacy with “Cover Me Up”. Like Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love”, the tune addresses the more frightening corners of intimacy, namely the reality that within any coupling there is a shared loneliness that no one else can understand.
If Hiatt’s record was filled with songs mostly about a man getting to know himself, Isbell’s record is about how we connect with others. “Flying Over Water” finds our narrator traveling with his lover and embracing her and her fears and promising to embrace rather than run from his own. After searching for a plane’s liquor cart, he suggests that diving into a bottle won’t help. The penalty, of course, is the loss of that shared experience, even if it’s one filled with tension and fear and the unwelcome appearance of one’s own frailties.
And though the album’s title suggests a specific location, the songs often take us to locations far and wide. The songs are not always about a lack of roots but instead are very often filled with longing for those very roots, as heard in “Traveling Alone” or “Stockholm” and perhaps most apparent in “New South Wales”, a song Isbell wrote about some time he spent on the road with fellow singer-songwriter Justin Townes Earle.
In it, two men spend their days adrift, trying to make sense of a life they alternately wanted yet can’t fully understand. They are, we learn, far from their mothers and prone to enjoying weak cocaine and Tequila. In the end, it’s the shared experience—one that might yield future songs—that is the greatest reward.
Much has already been said about “Live Oak” and how the opening (and closing) lines (“There’s a man who walks beside me/ it is who I used to be/ And I wonder if she sees him/and confuses him with me”) speak to a newly sober man’s desire for and fear of intimacy. The revelations the narrator makes are about a man with wild and wicked intentions, but it may just as well be a veiled story about a musician who’s fallen prey to the wicked ways of the road and is faced with reconciling that with the tenderness his lover knows.
Such are the concerns that populate “Different Days” and the haunting but healing “Relatively Easy” and the album’s greatest and perhaps darkest track, “Elephant”, which tells the story of a woman struggling with cancer and the man who keeps her company, watching as she travels from a free spirit to an empty shell of the woman she once was, incapable of the joys of singing, barely able to laugh about much anymore. It’s perhaps the most haunting because it touches on one of our greatest fears in those moments of intimacy: What will happen when we change? Whether it’s cancer or sobriety or the end of a love affair (“Songs That She Sang in the Shower”), these changes either provide the ultimate relief or the ultimate discomfort and we never know, standing on this side of them, which will lead to which.
This is the greatest gift that Isbell has given us with his songs—whether on Southeastern or other collections—the ability to acknowledge our fears and the permission to embrace them, even if from behind the mask of a four minute song. He's a songwriter who is not afraid of the sentimental but never becomes swallowed by sentimentality, a writer who steps into the darkness but never loses the light, and a voice that seems capable of having the answers but is, like all humans, limited in its omniscience.
It’s hard to know where the future will take Isbell or what other journeys he can take us on, but there’s something about the purity of his songs and the strength of his character that suggests he’s one of those writers who has and will continue to define his generation. One who has done so without irony, without succumbing to the temptations of writing about the easy matters of life.